“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” – Booker T.Washington
If there was ever a quote that equally embodies my life as an animator and as a powerlifter, this is it. Aside from the literal translation regarding weightlifting, I feel that this quote also demonstrates how we can excel in our areas of interest by seeking out and nurturing an encouraging an environment of constructive feedback.
For my first post to AltDevBlogADay, I’m going to tell parallel stories based on my experiences as an animator and a powerlifter, and show how opening myself up to external feedback has helped me grow throughout my careers in both.
1997. Syracuse University (SU) computer graphics lab. At the mature age of 21, I had just emailed out my MAGNUM OPUS OF ANIMATION. Not to my classmates, not to my professors. Not even to my mom (she didn’t know what email was then). No, this was much bigger. A few months earlier, I had been allowed onto the then small, referral-only CG-CHAR mailing list. Until now I had lurked and made a few small comments here and there, but that was it. This, however, was going to be my mark on the animation world.
From that lab at SU, I sent the animation I had poured my tortured, isolated 21-year-old heart and soul into, out to this list that had animators from Disney, ILM, Rhythm & Hues, and Will Vinton (just to name a few). They were going to be blown away! I was the next big thing and my phone was going to start ringing off the hook (back then, we had phones that hung on actual hooks, kids).
I hit send at 11:49pm. The lab closed at midnight for undergrads, but I worked there, I had a key, and the grad students didn’t care about the Macintosh I was using. One asked me what I was doing there so late, and I showed him what I had just sent out. He looked at me with a smirk, and walked away.
I sat by the monitor in the lab, filled with anticipation, waiting for replies from people asking how they could get in contact me in order to offer me a job right after graduation. It didn’t take long for the first reply to come in from the west coast, and then the next, and a few more after that. “Egads!” I thought, “they must LOVE it. Time to bask in the glow of… wait, WHAT? My poses lack weight? The facial looks swimmy? REDO THIS ENTIRE SECTION?!?!?”
I was disheartened, totally bummed out, but more importantly, I was confused. How could this happen? I spent 2 months working on these 70 seconds! I tweaked and tweaked! I spent every day and night animating! I read the Illusion of Life! I looked at other work on CG-CHAR (there was no Youtube. GET OFF MY LAWN), and I just knew I was doing it right! No, these people must be wrong, and I needed to show them.
I went into seclusion for a few days to clear my head. I read through Chuck Amuck (Chuck Jones was one of my idols) and Illusion of Life. Suddenly, it hit me. None of these guys I was reading about were great alone. There were NINE old men, not one. There were teams who worked together to create final products, and here I was trying to create a short film all by my lonesome.
What I had done was allow myself, mistakenly, to be creative in a vacuum. I had no input on my short from anyone but myself. I had had no experiences outside of my animation. I had gotten to the point where my influences were limited to the animation I was working on and nothing else. Clearly, it had stunted my growth, both as an animator and as a person.
The next day I went through all of the feedback I got from the CG-CHAR list, and started soliciting feedback from fellow students. My goal was to make my work better, and to do it by asking for help.
It was time to join the real creative world.
Once I did this- once I started creating animation iteratively and with feedback I found my animation improving immensely. The next semester, I started working on another short that was not only inspired by a fellow student’s previous work, but encouraged by him. I showed my progress to my classmates as well as the amazing people on CG-CHAR, and the difference in quality from my previous endeavor was astronomical. It even led to the opportunity for me to land my first industry job at Volition (Mike Comet worked there and had tracked my progress the entire way on CG-CHAR), which started my path to where I am today.
It also taught me the merits of being on a team. More often than not, developing anything on a game dev. team in a vacuum results in failure. Tools can’t be developed without input from those that will use them. Characters can’t be conceptualized without design direction. Rigs can’t be delivered without animators putting them through their paces along the way. Animations can’t be created without knowledge of how they will work with the engine, gameplay, or most importantly, all of the other animations.
Being in a vacuum sucks (HA-HAAAA), but it can be avoided. If you are a student or entry-level, seek out mentors who encourage an environment of feedback and discussion. If you are experienced or a lead, encourage those new guys to ask questions. Guide them in the right direction, but let them learn and grow as part of the team.
In the end, we’re only as strong as our weakest link. Staying out of those creative vacuums can help strengthen the whole team, one individual at a time.